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Departments : Officer Survival

Verbal Judo: Talk Your Way Through Confrontations

Recognizing a commonsense communications approach to police work.

August 01, 2000  |  by Officer Brian Scott

Law enforcement is about 97 percent verbal interaction and only 3 percent physical interaction, according to a recent Rutgers University study.  In keeping with such findings, a new communications philosophy, called Verbal Judo, has been making an impression on how law enforcement deals with the public.

Verbal Judo is a system of verbalization tactics, designed by Dr. George Thompson, an English-professor-turned-police-officer, after years of experience and observation of police interaction styles.  This program has been so effective that it is now mandatory in many of our country's police departments and academy curriculums, including those in Los Angeles, New York, and Honolulu.  Many agree with Officer Sean Collins, of the New York State University Police Community Relations Team, that we have "practiced some or all of these techniques for years without even realizing it."

Verbal Judo Objectives

Verbal Judo has a main theme of generating voluntary compliance, through verbal persuasion and maintaining what Thompson calls "professional face."  This is a businesslike demeanor, even in the presence of insults.  The three goals are:

1. Officer safety--Officers are taught to use words to prevent confrontations from becoming physically violent;

2. Enhanced Professionalism--Officers recognize the impact of their words on the public and use language appropriate to each encounter; and

3. Reduced vicarious liability--Officer who handle citizen encounters more skillfully are less likely to generate complaints and lawsuits and will also be more articulate in describing their reasoning and actions.

Verbal Judo boasts reduction rates of nearly 50 percent in citizen complaints against agencies that use the technique.  Said Illinois State Police District 9 (Springfield, Ill.) commander Capt. Dennis E. "Denny" Sloman, "Everyone on my department is trained in VJ.  It works.  And when it doesn't work, it protects you civilly as it shows all the reasonable steps you were forced to take in the escalation of force to get the subject to comply."

Verbal Judo in Action

Verbal Judo focuses on three basic personality types: "Nice People" (cordial, cooperative, law abiding); "Difficult People" (challenging, questioning authority) and "Whimps" (passive-aggressive).

Verbal Judo teaches that when we encounter the difficult person who is uncooperative, instead of resisting, redirect that person's effort to your advantage.  Respond with a "professional face" not a "personal face."  Thompson says that the most dangerous weapon today's police officer carries is not the firearm but the "cocked tongue."  He adds, "When we REACT to a situation, the situation controls us.  When we RESPOND, we control the situation."

Verbal Judo addresses the common mistakes in verbal dialogue and discusses alternatives. Phrases to avoid in confrontations include shouting, "calm down!"  The receiver perceives this as criticism and implies that they have no right to be upset.  This exacerbates the situation.

Instead try, "What's the trouble?" stated calmly.  How it is stated (nonverbal cues) is more important than what is said.

Another phrase mentioned in Thompson's book, Verbal Judo-The Gentle Art of Persuasion, is, "Come here!"  Often when subjects hear this, they actually try to leave or may assault the officer.  Thompson recommends replacing this command with, "Excuse me, but I need to chat with you a second."  This softer approach is less threatening and gives the impression that the subject still remains some control.

Looking Good

The scrutiny under which we perform as officers is addressed by Thompson, who says, "We not only have to win on the street, but also in court and the media.  It is not enough to be good.  Got to look good and sound good or no good.  Reality is that the inappropriate, abusive language that comes from an officer makes page one of the papers."  We need to remember that we represent our agencies and the law and never our own egos.

Also, according to Thompson, if you respond to a burglary and really want to upset someone, just look unconcerned when you meet the victim.  An officer appearing to empathize with the person in crisis diffuses many difficult situations.

Respect toward people as a tremendous impact on the way we are received and the cooperation we garnish.  Many police administrators across the country express a desire for increased experience and training in the "soft skills" for their recruits.

Wisconsin has made this a top priority in its "Training for Tomorrow" initiative and as part of this has implemented a Professional Communications Advisory Committee, which is part of the Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.  North Found du Lac (Wis.) P.D. Det. Sgt. Paul Clarke, a member of this committee said, "It is my opinion that the Verbal Judo program is very good.  The concept behind the program is sound, and the training techniques are powerful."

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